A Week in Radio: Dead whales, guide dogs and transient global amnesia

IN theory I’m all in favour of Radio 4 Extra, I just can’t say I listen to it much. But on Sunday night an unscheduled trip led to me tuning in.

By default, really. I was just cycling through stations when something caught my ear. I think it was the phrase transient global amnesia.

It came from a show called Radiolab, a series that has been bought in from public radio in the US, and is presented by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Frankly, I nearly turned it over. Initially, the show sounded quite busy, even noisy. People seemed to be talking over each other. But once you got used to its idiosyncrasies Radiolab proved fascinating.

Which brings us to transient global amnesia. We were introduced to Mary Sue Campbell who lives in California. On August 24, 2010, she phoned her daughter and said something about her house felt off.

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“Things look weird,” she said her daughter. “I’m looking at the calendar and it says August 2010. That’s not right.”

Her daughter told her it was. She assumed Mary Sue was having a stroke. But no, it was transient global amnesia.

Mary Sue had lost the ability to form new memories. Thankfully, it’s a usually short-lived condition. But for hours and hours Mary Sue’s memory would reset itself every 90s seconds and when it did, she started asking her daughter the exact same questions she’d asked 90 seconds before.

Curious and strange, right? Actually, “Curious and Strange” would be a good alternative title for Radiolab.

The theme of this episode was “Loops”. It strung together a number of different ideas and stories around this loose theme, taking in the idea of repetition in comedy, logical paradoxes in maths (or math, as they’re American) and whale fall.

Yes, whale fall. I’d not heard the term before either. It’s used to describe the corpse of a whale falling to the bottom of the ocean.

Where’s the loop here, you might ask? Well, it’s in the life cycle of those creatures who live off the corpse. As oceanographer Professor Craig Smith explained, scavengers arrive within minutes – hagfish, initially – who smell the whale and burrow into the carcass. The professor said the result “looks like a giant Medusa head” (hope you’re not eating right now).

Soon, other scavengers arrive and then when scraps of whale flesh fall onto the ocean floor worms begin to feed. Finally, as the whale’s skeleton starts to give off sulphur it is covered in “this beautiful mat of white bacteria,” according to Professor Smith. “It’s fluffy and looks just like a polar bear’s fur.”

How creepy and beautiful is that?

There are, it seems, 55 different species who don’t live on any other habitat other than dead whales. Whales live on the order of 50 to 70 years. A whale fall can support other creatures for a similar lengh of time. There’s your circle of life.

Over on Radio 4 on Thursday a new series of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry offered a similar, albeit rather less gruesome, mix of the quirky and the inquisitive. In this case, though, geneticist Adam Rutherford and mathematician Hannah Fry were seeking to answer just the one question. How do guide dogs know where they are going?

Their answer took in everything from co-evolution to why more dogs are watching TV these days

What did I learn? That dogs don’t know when it’s safe to cross the road. Oh, and that Pelican crossings have a spinning cone beneath the button box that tells you it’s safe to cross for those who can’t see the Green man or hear any auditory signal.

Every day is a learning day, right?

Anyway, no spoilers (it’s on iPlayer) but just be aware, it gets quite emotional when it comes to the relationship between the guide dog and its owner.

Listen Out For: This Cultural Life, Radio 4, tonight, 7.15pm. As part of Radio 4’s revamp of its arts coverage, John Wilson starts a new series talking to people in the arts world about their creative influences. The first guest is Kenneth Branagh

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992